I’ve set on this topic long enough. Thanks, John Wall of The Truth Is…There is no Box, for making a comment somewhere on social media that reminded me to finish the draft I started exactly six months ago. Now that national conversation regarding OCR has once again turned to doping, cheating, and prize money (thank you, Lance Armstrong), this topic has become relevant again. But this article is not about doping, cheating, prize money, or Lance Armstrong. It’s about the plight of the competitive racer. [Okay, “plight” is too strong of a description, but play along.]
At the risk of sacrificing explanatory details, I’ll summarize the issue in one sentence. In our discussions of fairness and competition, we often over-simplify and lump everyone into either elite or open class racers.
If you are an elite racer and competing for prize money and sponsorship, then unfairness (whether PEDs, improper burpees, blatant cheating, or inadequate obstacle monitoring) is just plain bad. Hard to argue against that.
Almost everyone else then is relegated to the open heat and who cares if someone has an unfair advantage in one of those waves. They paid their money to have a good time playing in the mud and that’s what they’re doing. Who are we to judge? They’re not really trying to win and if they do, so what? It’s just an open heat. OCR is not really a sport and it doesn’t matter.
The problem is that it DOES MATTER. TO SOME. Stay with me. Let me illustrate with a case scenario.
The main character of this story is …let’s call him T.M. Spartanfrog. TM recently became hooked on OCR after his first Warrior Dash. He’s not the fastest guy and needs to improve grip strength, but he trained hard and smart with the intent of trying to finish high in the standings of his next race. During that race, he thought he did pretty well, but along the way he had to wait a couple of minutes at a back-logged obstacle; passed a couple of guys taking selfies; saw one guy sitting on the ground eating a granola bar; and maneuvered his way through a group of racers in team uniforms helping each other through the course. He also noticed a few racers who skipped some obstacles, saw someone ignore volunteer instructions for rules of on obstacle crossing, and witnessed 4 different people who didn’t complete an obstacle-failure penalty.
Final results showed him finishing 34th overall out of 487. Not bad, but what did that really mean? How many of those 487 people were actually “racing”? How many people “cheated” by skipping obstacles? How many spots did he lose for standing in line at that one obstacle? In addition to the misgiving he had about his comparative performance, TM found out later that he missed qualifying for the OCRWC (one of the best experiences OCR has to offer) by one spot.
As a member of various Facebook groups such as Obstacle Racers Worldwide, All Things Obstacle Course Racing, and Spartan Racers Worldwide TM learned that if he wanted a true performance benchmark and a fair (at least a semblance of fair) race, then he needed to sign up for the elite heat.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute, Mr. “Can’t get across a platinum rig”! If you can’t run a 6-minute mile, nor complete every obstacle YOU DON’T BELONG there. You and your ego are just clogging up the elite wave! Take your wannabe self back to the open heat and leave the elite heat to REAL athletes who have something at stake.
[Note: This does not represent the attitude of most elite racers I know, but I see this expressed by someone almost daily]
See the quandary for TM and other competitive athletes?
If issues of performance and fairness and competition and obstacle-difficulty and rankings are split into only two groups, then the competitive (but not elite) racer pays the price. I tend to agree with the sentiment that most OCR participants approach their once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime race as recreation. I am fine with them treating their experience as such. Also, whether due to genetics, age, injury, lack of athletic background, whatever…everyone cannot be an elite racer. That doesn’t mean that those who are competitive shouldn’t be permitted to treat it like a sport. It also doesn’t mean that race companies should just ignore that demographic’s needs and focus only on elites (exposure/publicity) and open competitors ($$$$).
OCR is still evolving and I believe the numbers of competitive racers now warrant, as Margaret Schlachter penned last year, development of a third category of races – competitors. That competitive heat should operate under same or similar rules as the elite heat and racers should be held to rules and ethical standards. That leaves the elite waves to the truly spectacular athletes and the open heat participants can enjoy the experience however they so choose. I attribute much of the success of the OCRWC to their structure that accommodates the non-elite, but still competitive racers.
Until the big races, add such a separate wave(s) for competitive racers, then elite heats are going to overflow with people who aren’t really elite and/or the complaints about unfairness will continue to escalate. Twenty-five percent of all open heat racers are there to compete and it would be a boon for OCR if that was recognized and accommodated. [Okay. I just made the 25% stat up, but others use fabricated statistics on social media all the time to make a point.] Yes, adding a separate category might add to the logistics for race directors and organizers, but in the end it should improve the experience of all involved in our sporby (sport + hobby = sporby).
Would it surprise you to know that I’ve been thinking about this as well?…lol. I wonder if this category would be similar to the Journeyman category in OCRWC. My feeling is that (at least) three things are probably important with respect to addressing this “gap”. One you mentioned, separate heats, right after the elite heats I think, so that you could still take advantage of the course marshals for some sense of oversight. This would also eliminate much of the bottlenecks and waiting times. Also, to avoid open racers from jumping in there to avoid traffic as well, you would charge an extra fee…somewhat less than the elite fee…to discourage that activity. People running for fun won’t see a need to pony-up additional money. Third….the results need to be segregated from the open age group results!…otherwise you won’t eliminate the initial problems of qualifying and performance evaluation. This wouldn’t necessarily be perfect but might get it closer to solving your “competitive but not elite” issue. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some races are already working on this. Great read, as usual…and thanks for the mention!!
I agree with all three of your logistical points.
I guess I see it differently. To me, the elite heat is a competitive heat for anyone looking to compete. I don’t see it as a heat that only 6 minute milers or the “stars” of OCR should enter. After my first Spartan in the Open wave, I decided to enter competitive waves because I didn’t want to wait in line for obstacles. Back in 2011, most people did the obstacle or the penalty. Now… well there’s a lot of helping and a lot of skipping. I understand everyone is at different fitness levels, and I’m happy they’re out there on the course. But that’s why I choose to run elite. NOT because I am “elite” but because I want a time that fairly reflects my efforts compared to others under the same conditions.
Actually we don’t disagree, but the issue is not as exacerbated in the women’s field. Men are racing elite heats exactly for the same reason as you, but now those heats are filling up quickly and the disparity among skill levels is very large. There’s been a lot of criticism lately of “lesser” male athletes racing elite when they don’t “belong” there. But if they race in open waves, everyone is playing by different rules and for different reasons so the competition is hollow. The more we push for legitimacy as a sport, the more restrictive the elite heats become, leaving all the lesser-skilled, but still competitive racers with no good option. Thanks for reading and commenting!